Hey, the Mekons Are in Town

“You know where Mitch is,” sneered Sally Timms at Maxwell’s on Friday, after a catcall for the Mekons’ trickster roadie. (Mitch’s visa was lost in the Court of St. James’s.) “You were all at the show last night.”

Only a band this confident in our devotion would propose an idea as bad as the Mekons’ current tour, in which the far-flung fellowship survey their 25-year career over three nights (art exhibit and lyric-reading included). For a few minutes Thursday at CBGB, we convinced ourselves it was a put-on. But alas—just like my 15-year-old mix tape, they opened with their very first single, the anti-consumerist “32 Weeks” (which sometime cover band the Sadies had walloped an hour before).

Here’s to a band that has it all: tunes, creativity, humor, politics, brains, reliability, sex appeal (well, Sally and Tom Greenhalgh, anyway). But their charm is predicated on their celebration of their limits, commercial and technical. And despite legendary banter (Jon Langford on gentrification: “CBGB has toilet paper now? I’d brought my own leaves.”), they seemed (at least on the first two nights) uninspired by becoming a human box set. It’s not like they’ve disowned previous incarnations, though; as their musicianship has deepened, they’ve only made the old stuff sound better.

That fighting spirit was evident at Galapagos before the Maxwell’s show. Jon’s impassioned take on the 1982 rant “The Building”; the beloved “Beaten and Broken,” powered by Steve Goulding drumming a barstool with rolled-up Onions; a hot-rod “Jerusalem,” from the new one: Now that’s exhibition! A rambunctious tot cheered. “Can I see your ID, mate?” Jon asked. “I thought this gig was over-forties only.” A classic Mekon quip for their first new fan in years. —Josh Goldfein

The Dish Ran Away . . .

Of all songwriter tricks, none is more craven than the Friday celebration: “Working for the Weekend” will anchor FM drive time as long as Budweiser comes in bottles. “Small Stakes,” from Spoon’s Kill the Moonlight, the Austin band’s fourth album, is “Working for the Weekend” for semi-privileged dotcommers. “It feels alright Friday night to Sunday,” singer Britt Daniel exults, but it’s not that simple: He and his pals get high or argue about hip bands, replacing intimacy with opinions, but weekends, he knows, are the opiate of the elite. (Drive time has not yet beckoned.)

On Saturday at the Bowery, Spoon opened a brisk set with “Small Stakes,” and the jumpy, distorted keyboard riff set the semi-privileged elite in the crowd to hopping. Art-punk heir to the Talking Heads and the Pixies, Daniel is a smart-guy with a head full of fractured riffs and a voice so clogged, Jonathan Richman should buy him a Sudafed. His songs, once remote and shifty, with vague evocations of frustration, turned direct on last year’s breakthrough Girls Can Tell, due to an appreciation of Ray Davies and (believeitornot) Bruce Springsteen.

Not that Daniel has turned confessional: His most plainspoken song, “The Agony of Lafitte,” taunts the record executive who led Spoon into a major-label deal, then dumped them—hardly a universal experience. He’s simply moved from the impenetrable to the cryptic, exploring post-collegiate bohemian life and the ambivalent instinct to have a life “bigger than just any one,” as he sang in the superb breakup song “Everything Hits at Once.”

He messed up the song by starting with the second verse, then, in his customary, cute right-fist-on-forehead pose of confusion (imagine James Spader without a personal trainer), muttered, “The lyrics are hard on that one.” An inspired crowd demanded a second encore—shows in Boston and Chicago ended with only one—and as Jim Eno’s jarring drums set off a tense shift in Moonlight‘s “Jonathan Fisk,” Daniel broke a string, finishing to a roar, exultant and surprised at his power. —Rob Tannenbaum

Celebrate the Sinister

Sure, one could argue that there are more urgent things to protest now than crossed radio signals. But in Weimar New York, we gotta have art. And Saturday’s “Moody Sinister” WFMU benefit at Southpaw was a reminder that we can’t take access to it for granted. The station’s battling a transmitter proposed by WFUV (90.7 FM) that could interfere with it’s 91.1 signal.

No static touched the show itself, however, which reflected the cheerful eclecticism of the free-form station’s playlist. In between sets, DJ David Grubbs, sporting a fetching platinum wig, spun Miles, Ornette, and Louisville punk. Out Hud, a polo-shirted quintet, unwound sinuous, drum-machined instrumentals that mined portamentoed squelches from vintage Korgs and Yamahas. The Styrenes, art-punk beatniks circa ’70s Cleveland, offered punk skronk from their latest recording, but only after a 40-minute sonic shiatsu session that was their version of Terry Riley’s “In C.” When the last triumphant C crashed, someone yelled: “PLAY IN D!!!”—really the only appropriate response. Brother JT went by in a sweaty blur of whammy-bar howl, and garage-rock growl. Finally, proto-house/art-punk/funk legends ESG took the stage, and the collective booty went bonkers. Diva Renee Scroggins yelped and crooned as sisters Valerie and Marie laid down funk percussion, and second-generation Scrogginses Nicole and Chistelle macerated the mix with sweet lashings of bass and guitar. The only dissenting murmur from the grinning crowd was from a friend who observed, ” ‘UFO’ didn’t have the UFO sound,” and asked, “Couldn’t they have sampled it?” As Renee herself pointed out, everyone else has. Amount raised by WFMU? $3500. Seeing the donated performances? Priceless. —Sally Jacob

Free-Your-Ass Manifestos

How do you make personal-as-political music matter when the war drums are getting louder? This was the inevitable question last Monday, before the second night of the National Hopeline Network’s Take Action tour at Irving Plaza, featuring a delicious triple bill of Le Tigre, International Noise Conspiracy, and Northern State. Organized to benefit the 1-800-SUICIDE prevention hot line, it was a rare show of activism from an underground music community that—with a few exceptions—has recently adopted an all too passive stance on political matters. No one could argue with the worthiness of the cause. Yet considering how America’s new McCarthyism and imperial strategies are redefining everything you’ve ever known about world order, this Plea For Peace seemed slightly mistimed. It begged one question: When boogying to raise money so that teens don’t kill themselves, can we really dance down apocalypse?

Northern State did not have to answer the question: They were the new kids at the rally, still figuring out what their point will be, trying to jump the gate of obvious constraints (suburban white girls, hip-hop). But new songs like “Vicious Cycle” and “The Trinity” showed they were prepared for something serious. (Get back to them, when they figure out what it is!)

Sweden’s underheralded International Noise Conspiracy tried to revive the pacifist proletariat’s holy ghost with a combo of Clash-style sloganeering and JBs-via-Stooges channeling, and almost succeeded. A fan’s appearance on the stage-right amp-stack for a slew of Godfather-like moves during “Capitalism Stole My Virginity” was a beyond-verbal glance of the solidarity that was once punk’s raison d’être, warped into near-extinction.

Le Tigre’s very presence onstage demanded action, but they preached proven psalms to a hometown congregation. Electro punks as Jazzercise instructors, LT unleashed sexual liberation manifestos that raised the sweat level so extremely—cue Peaches for a guest reading of “Get Me Off”—that anything but personal community proclamations and bodily gyrations could be forgotten for an hour and a half.

Of course, when the sold-out show’s giddy audience was back out on the sidewalk, the drums of war were still beating. And no one on the stage had even mentioned it. —Piotr Orlov